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What is the point of education?
The new AI has me revisiting old questions about school and knowledge, and wondering what to teach my son
This all started with a tweet from the brilliant Anna Gát:
I replied: depends what university is *for*.
A few others replied Stanford (this is Twitter, after all). Other schools nominated were Princeton, University of Chicago, UC Berkeley, or Wharton, for business. Like me, some questioned the premise. One cheeky reply said the best university was Ycombinator, the startup accelerator.
For my part, I wouldn’t want to have gone anywhere other than St. John’s College, where for two years I studied the Classics and philosophy through the so-called Great Books curriculum. All seminars, all discussion-based, all Socratic in its interrogation of truth and meaning. It was there I truly got my education. It was there I learned to think, question, and be humble about knowledge and wisdom. It was there I learned that it didn’t matter how hard a text or how difficult the philosophical problem—I was worthy enough to engage with it.
I stand by that degree. And in fact, it’s looking better and better every day.
My whole adult life, there have been those who denigrate the study of philosophy. I’ve found they are usually either ideologues or techno-utopians—those who think the answer to every human problem is just a better and more comprehensive algorithm.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely completely blown away by ChatGPT. I’ve been using it for months, since it was launched last November, and I’m routinely stunned by what it can do. Tyler Cowen compared ChatGPT to the invention of the printing press on a recent episode of Bari Weiss’ Honestly podcast. Darek Thompson, in The Atlantic, compared AI to the invention of fire.
There are few technological advances that have happened in my lifetime that I have been so sure about—AI will change the world, and it will do it in a thousand ways we can’t even contemplate right now. You can either get on board with that, or get left behind.
At the same time, there’s a reason that the problems of existence identified by Plato and Aristotle (and many others) endure as problems to this day.
Last week, my son, a 6th grader, came home with an assignment from English class that I knew ChatGPT would make quick work of. I had a parenting decision to make: either teach him how to use the new AI or let him do it as his English teacher intended—slowly, over the course of two weeks, first by researching, then outlining, then drafting, then editing.
We did the assignment using ChatGPT. My son, who had already researched the subject, noted some factual errors. I explained how AI worked, that it was essentially a gigantic prediction engine that was so good and had been trained on so many millions of words that it appeared to be intelligent, and he seemed to understand that and thus why it still needed fact-checking.
Within a few minutes, we had the completed assignment: four paragraphs on the entrepreneur Lillian Vernon, which I had told it to rewrite “at a 7th-grade reading level.” I told my son I wanted him to appear smart for his grade, just not too smart, and he smiled at the subversion.
Then, perhaps sensing his teacher would consider this all to be cheating, my son went upstairs to his room to do the assignment himself, hand-written on blank white paper (He goes to a Waldorf school. They wouldn’t necessarily identify as anti-technology, but—they basically are.)
One thing that has become abundantly clear in the past months since ChatGPT was released, if it wasn’t already, is that schools cannot keep up with the pace of change. They are institutions. They move slowly. There’s just no way.
Fundamentally, our public school system was designed to churn out good worker bees. Our nation had a growing economy and a growing place on the world stage, and we needed our education system to prepare kids to join that economy. We needed them to become productive members of society, to further our national projects.
The idea of the modern industrial system is that schools would transfer knowledge and reasoning skills, and at the end, we would assess that reasoning through tests.
Meanwhile, the new version of ChatGPT scores in the 93rd percentile on the SAT reading and writing test, and the 88th percentile on the LSAT—better than I did on both. As Thompson wrote and Cowen observed, the new ChatGPT often appears smarter than even incredibly smart humans. “Sometimes, I think I’m looking at a minor genius,” Thompson wrote. It scored in the 90th percentile on the uniform bar exam. Lawyers and doctors, AI is coming, even for you.
When search engines and web browsers came out I was at a private high school, and my teachers to their credit realized they needed to teach me how to check what I found on the Internet, rather than barring me from using it. They realized I needed to learn how to enter useful search terms, rather than use the Dewey Decimal system in the library. A similar shift is needed now, only this one is much, much bigger. It’s so big I don’t see how almost any educational institution can cope.
Kids everywhere have always chafed in classes they perceive as not useful to life, and I can empathize. They know when they are being handed busywork. If they can skip straight to the answer, they will. They resist being taught to learn in a particular way just because the teacher has decided (or the school’s pedagogy demands) that this is the way to learn.
At first, it seemed my role as a parent in such situations was to say something like, “I know you probably won’t use this, and yes it is just busywork, but in life, there are many things you still have to do that are kind of stupid and pointless and believe me there is tons of busywork,” which, if you think about it, is a morally and practically disastrous lesson to teach a child: lots of stuff in life is pointless, so might as well get used to it now?
Early on in parenting, I stopped saying stuff like that. First, because it became clear to me that I’d rather have my child chafe than tell him he needs to learn to conform and put up with pointless bullshit—conformity will get you some places, but nonconformity will get you much more interesting places. And second, I realized that the economy was changing so rapidly that it wasn’t clear to me he actually would have to put up with busy work and bullshit just to make a living.
There’s a story from my childhood, where my mom goes into a parent-teacher conference for my sister. The teacher scolded my sister for not behaving in class, reasoning that one day when she goes to work in an office, she’ll definitely need these kinds of behavioral skills. To which my mom replied: no one in our family works in or goes to an office.
Anyway, the kids are right: school is teaching them the wrong things.
I find it very odd that we are committed as a society to teaching calculus, but, not, say: auto repair or carpentry or plumbing, when I have no fewer than six machines in my home that can do calculus for me but I still do not have any that can wire an outlet or change my oil.
For a hot second during the pandemic, it suddenly seemed clear to millions of us parents that the question of, what is education for, had finally been answered: it was for babysitting.
Without the kids going offsite every day, we suddenly had to manage their learning schedules alongside our own work routines. I managed, but also after about three weeks the novelty wore off and I was desperate for schools to reopen, and I was glad when they did. It’s really helpful for him to go to another, adult-supervised environment for at least seven hours each day, leaving me to work and write in peace, even if that environment is wasting a lot of his time.
Recently, my son has started getting frustrated with his Waldorf school—a frustration I’ve had for years. I routinely pull up to drop him off and he doesn’t want to get out of the car. He tells me he doesn’t feel he’s learning anything, to which I assure him, I’m sure you’re learning something.
Yet just because they learn something doesn’t mean school is doing a good job. But it’s usually difficult for parents to tell if making a change would be better. Counterfactuals are hard for parents to sort out, because we don’t know what our kids would have learned had they gone to a different school, a “better” school. It’s all speculation and intuition.
But it’s speculation and intuition I’ve done quite a bit of over the past, say five years of my son’s educational life. That’s because, as a co-parent with split custody, I’ve had a running disagreement with my son’s mom about whether this school is really serving his best interests anymore. I’ve felt for many years that he’d learn more and be happier and more engaged if he were at a school that allowed him to go deeper into his own interests. Unfortunately, that’s just not what they do at Waldorf.
Once, during a parent-teacher conference, I asked if they would allow my son to work ahead of the curriculum if he expressed a particular interest in doing so, say in math or physics. The answer, in short, was a curt no.
It wasn’t a matter of preference or even of school resources—it was a pedagogical issue. The whole idea underpinning Waldorf (or Steiner education) is the belief that kids’ brains develop in specific ways at certain times, and therefore kids should be learning certain academic subjects only at certain stages. This is why, to take the most well-known example, Waldorf teaches reading at a later age than your average public school. They simply do not make accommodation for kids to deviate from the predetermined developmental path.
Steiner did and still does have one good insight into child development that was ahead of its time, which is that young kids learn by playing. But that idea has pretty much gone mainstream. Today, Waldorf is just like every other educational institution: incapable of changing to keep up with the times.
Thus, my son is deeply bored and also acutely aware of being forced to learn certain subjects he has absolutely no interest in (the leading one right now is violin… yes, all Waldorf kids have to learn violin).
Thankfully, after nearly a decade at this school, it appears I’m finally getting the opportunity to put him somewhere else. My top choice is a school in Barcelona called LearnLife—its homepage is speaking my language: “The world is changing. So should how we learn.” And, after visiting the school in February during my trip to Spain I’m convinced it’s more than just marketing-speak.
In the brief hour I was there to get a tour, we randomly came across a group of “Explorers” (10 - 12-year-olds) who were working (playing?) on a role-playing simulation. One girl was heads down to the computer as if she were a coder, except she was writing the next set of prompts for the game, while two others were waiting to see what the parameters would be for the next round. Another boy was looking over the first girl’s shoulder, trying to follow whatever it was she was furiously typing into the software. Keep in mind this was after school had ended. They were just hanging out now.
This, this is where I wanted him.
At Waldorf, the “Grade One Readiness Committee” once told me my son wasn’t ready to start first grade because, among other reasons, he could “jump quite well forwards, but fell over and tripped trying to go backwards,” and also because he was passing a crayon back and forth between hands while drawing, which the committee took as evidence that he hadn’t yet chosen a dominant hand (he had—it had been obvious he was left-handed since a year old). Later, they tied his academic readiness to whether his molars had started to come in.
At home, my son has always been able to play for hours by himself. He has an incredibly active imagination and becomes deeply immersed in projects, especially building projects. It’s been this way since he was a toddler.
Yet in his school reports, teachers routinely observe that he is easily distracted in classes he’s not interested in. I get the same lecture from his teachers that my mom got from me and my sister’s teacher four decades ago: kids need to learn how to sit still and pay attention because… just, because.
To which I always reply: my son sits still and pays attention to anything he is deeply interested in, and I’m sorry it’s not your class.
It’s been hard for me to find a good alternative school that I’m excited about for him, although now I do think I’ve found it. And I do sometimes fear for the future, and his future specifically.
But part of me also wonders if the kids really are ok, if we would just let them be and stop forcing them into all our old paradigms.
When ChatGPT was released in November, it just so happened that my ex’s kids were there, including her 18-year-old daughter, who is wise and introspective, and mature beyond her years. She was immediately better at writing prompts than I was, and I was happy to learn from her over the course of a few days how to get what I needed out of the new tool.
Two years ago, I gave her an old Macbook laptop I was no longer using, noting that the battery often overheated and the fan went crazy, and also that it had some old corporate software preventing new applications from being installed. Within a few days, she had hacked the operating system, circumvented the software, and fixed the battery overheating problem. She’s not even that into computer science—she just had a more flexible and open mind and had figured out all the fixes on her own by Googling.
And so I encourage a certain disdain for our formal educational institutions.
The other night, my ex’s other kid came over. He’s a junior in high school. We talked about his College search, and I noted that College is both much more expensive and much less obviously important than it was when I was his age. When I was 17, it still seemed like College was the key to something. Now, it’s not exactly clear to me what they teach there, but I’m pretty certain it’s not worth $70,000/year, which is the approximate annual cost of living and tuition at his top-pick school.
So, what should they be teaching? What is the purpose of school, of education, if there is one beyond babysitting? We still have national projects, important ones, but what skills to achieve those projects should the institutions be aiming at exactly?
Certainly a flexibility of mind. I think they need to learn informed skepticism. Resistance to groupthink. They must develop a capacity for judgment and discernment. They need to grapple with hard ideas and determine whether they are likely to be true, a little true, or not at all true. They must understand psychology, cognitive dissonance, and moral ambiguity. These are things the liberal arts used to purport to teach, although it’s unclear to me whether that mission has been either completely or only a little subsumed by various commitments to activist ideologies.
It would also be exceedingly helpful, considering our national projects, to learn some basic trade skills: wiring, electricity, batteries, energy efficiency, and other skills connected with the building trades. But those are actually not that hard to learn. It did used to be the case that nearly everyone knew how to build their own house, and I think it’d be useful to recapture some of that ethic.
What is harder is to learn humility about the nature of wisdom and knowledge. We need to instill optimism about what is within our kids’ capacity to change. I believe kids should be given permission to learn, go deep, chase their passions and desires.
We should not be teaching cynicism. Rather, I am all for inculcating a kind of privilege, a privilege that says: the world is yours, you must take it, you can do anything, you can learn anything, because in fact all of that is increasingly true.
It’s just not clear to me that our educational institutions have much to do with any of that or know how to teach it.